How to Become a Great Self-Learner

According to the 2003 research paper Online Learning: A Learner’s Guide by Guglielno and Guglielno, success in education depends on two main traits: technical competence and efficient self-directed learning. While technical comprehension is easy to grasp with time, self-direction and self-drive is a whole different ballgame, according to educators.  And if you are going to be a great self-learner, you are going to need a lot of self-direction and self-drive.  But aside from that, there is a lot of other skills you will need in order to be a great autodidact.  Below are seven self-directed learning strategies for you to become a great self-learner.

1) Learn to focus

If you cannot focus and concentrate, your self-directed learning experience will be futile. This is the most important of all skills to have (or acquire) when learning outside the classroom. In conventional instructor-led learning environments, light reading and paying attention in lecture is usually enough to get a good grasp of the material.  But when learning is self-guided, there isn’t an instructor that will break down the material for you.  You need to be disciplined enough to fully focus without something prodding you as this is simply the only way to absorb the material.

The first step to focusing is finding a place conducive to learning. Preferably, it is a quiet place without distractions.

Another way to focus and get in the zone is to create numerous micro goals. Micro goals are subgoals of bigger goals. For instance, if your goal for today is to get through 30 math problems, you can break that down to little micro goals (also called chunks). You can break 30 problems down to three distinct micro goals—10 problems for each micro goal. And once you are done with one chunk, take a break. But when studying, your sole focus your current micro goal, and nothing else—not even the next set of problems.

On the topic of breaks—take them often in order to avoid mental fatigue. One popular method for taking breaks is the pomorodo technique, which dictates a 5 minute break should be taken every 25 minutes of full and uninterrupted focus.  Another way to do it is to work diligently for 52 minutes and then take a 17 minute break after.  But again, the work/break ratio is completely up to you; just make sure that your time dedicated to work is really focused work, and then your time during a break is really a break.

And lastly on the topic of focus, stop multitasking. It is the bane of efficient learning. You learn and comprehend half as well and make twice as many mistakes. Concentrate on one thing at a time and really focus on getting it down. Avoid checking your e-mail or checking Facebook or the likes. If you have trouble with self-control, there are certain programs you can download that will block access to certain time-wasting websites of your choice. One program that I’ve used is Cold Turkey for PC.

2) Take notes with a pen

No matter how good your memory is, make it a point to take notes. No, don’t type your notes. Write. Writing longhand (yes, with a pen) has been proven to be more effective for memory recall and learning than typing. This is because writing longhand stimulates the reticular activating system (RAS). The system acts as a filter for everything you need to process information. It gives more importance to stuff you’re currently focusing on, such as writing. In addition, writing longhand requires your brain to be more active than the simple act of monotonous tapping of the keyboard.

3) Tough it out


The initial phase of self-directed learning is often easy because motivation is high and material is basic. However, as time goes on the material gets harder and motivation tends to wane. The initial gusto to learn is now replaced by frustration.  At this point, most people will quit as they no longer have the motivation or patience to break through the plateau.

It is easy to gain familiarity, it is hard to gain competence. In order to gain competence, you have to stay the course and stick with it. Yes, it may be frustrating and tedious. However, if you truly want to be competent at something then you must have the drive to stay the course and not quit. Quitting should not be an option. If you quit before you are truly competent, then you would have just wasted all that time accomplishing nothing. Be critical of yourself and do not let yourself quit.  If you’re a winner, you won’t quit.

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4) Assume responsibility and accountability

As a self-directed learner, you need to be responsible for the knowledge you gain, meaning it is up to you to learn about the things that you are curious about. If you want to become a successful learner, you do not have to be prodded to find the answers. You must have the initiative to do this by yourself.  If you succeed, you get all the credit.  If you fail, you get all the blame.  It is as simple as that.  Be responsible for your own education. Hold yourself accountable for your own failures.

5) Come up with an effective learning plan

[wp_ad_camp_3] Architects have blueprints; military men have strategies – these drafts all help them succeed in what they do. As with learning, you need to come up with a plan in order to succeed. Here are the elements that should be included in your learning plan:

Objectives and Goals

What is your goal for learning all this?  Have clear goals and objectives for your learning curriculum.  Set specific guidelines for the material you are going to learn.  This will be your guiding light as you gain competence.


What resources will you use to learn?  What will be your primary learning tool?  What resources will you use to supplement the primary learning tool?

Deadline/Target Date

When do you want to learn this by?  Set specific deadlines for yourself and establish mini-deadline and mini-milestones along the way.

Evaluation Tools

How will you test your knowledge and competence?  How will you be able to tell that you are really absorbing the material?  What will you do to evaluate how much you’ve learned?

If you are teaching yourself, there is no ready-made syllabus available for your learning. Instead, you will have to plan according to what you want to learn. But like learning in school, you should always learn fundamentals first before learn the more advanced topics.

6) Review, review, review

The Forgetting Curve (posited by Hermann Ebbinghaus) states that we will only remember 10 percent of what we learned after 3-6 days (depending on the material) if we do not reinforce the learning with review.   When you are learning in a structured environment, reviews are set up through a set curriculum. However, if you are self-taught, the review structure isn’t set up for you—you have to set up a review schedule yourself.

In order to truly learn the material, you should plan on doing a short review of the material a day after learning it.  Then you should plan on doing weekly reviews for several weeks thereafter also to reinforce the material. These reviews should not take long because you should be reviewing concepts, not facts. Concepts are fundamentally important to the learning process, not facts.

7) Focus on understanding principles

In school, you are taught a lot of things you actually don’t need to know. And sadly, all this extra fluff distracts and detracts from real learning as it forces students to remember too many (insignificant) things. When you are an autodidact, you can avoid learning all the extra unnecessary fluff. Instead of focusing on trivial details of the topic, you should instead use your time to understand the underlying principles of what you are learning.

In understanding concepts, it is important to remember Pareto principle, 80 percent of what’s you really need to understand is in 20 percent of the material.

About the author


Netflix enthusiast, horrible speller, jiujitsu hobbyist, weekend drinker, and occasional poker player. Favorite quote is "[o]ut of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."

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